A casual user might place drugs into two categories: good and bad. But those labels are too limited for governmental agencies attempting to determine which substances should be allowed to sit on store shelves and those that need a doctor’s oversight. That’s why governmental agencies use drug schedule classifications. These formal lists provide a significant amount of detail about specific drugs, what they do and how they should be handled.

Drug Scheduling Basics

Placing drugs into appropriate categories is an important part of keeping the public safe. Putting over-the-counter medicines into the wrong schedule could result in unreasonable arrests, while making a dangerous drug widely available could result in deaths. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration works diligently to keep dangerous drugs out of the wrong hands by providing detailed documentation to doctors, pharmacists and other healthcare providers.1

All documentation is available online and includes detailed information for anyone searching for the specifics of drug classification in the United States.

Although the day-to-day updates and information about drugs and scheduling rests with the FDA, the U.S. Attorney General is ultimately responsible for placing a drug in the proper schedule. The U.S. Attorney General can also reclassify drugs when necessary, guided by the information provided by the FDA, drug enforcement officials and medical professionals.


illustration of US capitol buildingDrug Schedules

There are currently five distinct drug schedule classifications, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.2 These schedules are based on the drug’s acceptable medical use and the drug’s potential for dependency and abuse.

Schedule I represents drugs that are the most dangerous and carry the highest risk for physical and psychological dependence. Schedule V represents those drugs that are less harmful and least likely to result in addiction. Schedule II, III and IV are drugs that fall somewhere between the most dangerous and the least.

The following is a list of the classifications, along with examples of the drugs in each class:

  • Schedule I – Schedule I drugs are those with no currently accepted medical use and with a high potential for abuse. Examples include: heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone and peyote.
  • Schedule II – Schedule II drugs are those with a high potential for abuse and the possibility of severe psychological or physical dependence. Like Schedule I drugs, these drugs are considered dangerous. Examples include: combination products with less than 15 milligrams of hydrocodone per dosage unit (Vicodin), cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), oxycodone (OxyContin), fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall and Ritalin.
  • Schedule III – Schedule III drugs are those with a moderate to low potential for dependence. Schedule II drugs have less abuse potential than Schedule I and II drugs but more than Schedule IV. Examples include: products containing less than 90 milligrams of codeine per dosage unit (Tylenol with codeine), ketamine, anabolic steroids and testosterone.
  • Schedule IV – Schedule IV drugs are those with a low potential for abuse and dependence. Examples include: Xanax, Soma, Darvon, Darvocet, Valium, Ativan, Talwin, Ambien and Tramadol.
  • Schedule V – Schedule V drugs have lower potential for abuse than Schedule IV and contain limited quantities of certain narcotics. Schedule V drugs are commonly used as antidiarrheal, antitussive, and analgesic medications. Examples include: cough preparations with less than 200 milligrams of codeine or per 100 milliliters (Robitussin AC), Lomotil, Motofen, Lyrica and Parepectolin.3

A drug’s placement in a specific category isn’t always permanent. For example, according to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, experts met in 2013 to discuss moving hydrocodone products, which are currently in the Schedule III classification, into the Schedule II category.4 Experts are constantly looking at addiction numbers, attempting to determine whether drugs need greater levels of control or whether the current protections are adequate.

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1Drugs.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page. N.p., 9 Aug. 2017. Web. 12 Aug. 2017.

2 DEA / Drug Scheduling. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2017.

3 DEA / Drug Scheduling. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2017.

4Hydrocodone moved to Schedule II in DEA final rule.” American Pharmacists Association. N.p., 25 Aug. 2014. Web. 12 Aug. 2017.